In this podcast episode, our guest Dr. Jessica Bacon, an associate professor of teaching and learning at Montclair State University, chats with us about anti-ableism and inclusion and explains how we can talk about these important concepts in developmentally appropriate ways with young children.
Intro: Thanks for joining us for a podcast from the Illinois Early Learning Project. Our project is part of the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and funded by the Illinois State Board of Education. On this podcast, we share information about how young children grow and learn as well as strategies adults can use to help them thrive. My name is Natalie Danner.
Natalie Danner: Today, we’re talking about anti-ableism in preschool. How do we talk about it? We’re joined by Dr. Jessica Bacon, who is the associate professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Montclair State University, where she teaches classes on inclusive education and disability studies. Dr. Bacon is also the faculty coordinator for inclusive education combined bachelor’s and master’s dual certification programs in K-6 and preschool through grade 3 education and has written extensively on anti-ableist curriculum in early childhood classrooms. Thank you so much for being with us today.
Jessica Bacon: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.
Natalie Danner: Great, so today we are eager to hear from you as an inclusive teacher educator because our listeners want to learn ways to incorporate ideas around inclusive education, diversity, and anti-ableism into everyday early childhood classrooms. So let’s get started with a very broad question: What is ableism?
Jessica Bacon: It’s a very good place to start, because, unfortunately, I find in everyday life a lot of people don’t actually know what ableism is, or maybe have heard of it but don’t really understand what the definition is. So it’s a good place to start.
So ableism, actually, it’s sort of akin to others isms, that we’re, I think, more familiar with as a society like racism or sexism. But ableism is specifically around disability, and it’s less being just about discrimination, but it’s actually about privileging and prioritizing able-bodied ways of being or able-minded ways of being in the world, which then when we uphold that you know it’s quote unquote “better” to be able-bodied, or to move through the world by, for instance, walking, or by speaking verbally, that then results in discrimination towards people who exist differently, or who, you know, are considered to have a disability.
There’s a really great quote actually from the unfortunately late Thomas Hehir, who was a faculty at Harvard, and worked in the Department of Education for a time, and he wrote, he writes about ableism in schooling, and I think there’s a quote that helps understand it, it always helped me understand it, he writes that ableism is the devaluation of disability that “results in societal attitudes that uncritically assert that it is better for a child to walk than roll, speak than sign, read print than read Braille, spell independently than use spell check” and so on.
And so it’s the idea in schools, right, that somehow you’re better off if you walk through a classroom than roll through a classroom, and we set up our class, our rooms, and our structures, or buildings, to prioritize the kind of able-bodied ways of being or the norm. What is seen as the normal way of being, which then results in discrimination towards people with disabilities. So, and it plays out in a lot of different ways in society. You know it plays out in our physical structures. It plays out in our attitudes towards people with disabilities. It plays out in our culture. So there’s, you know, kind of a lot of different levels that ableism operates around. So hopefully that helps answer that question.
Natalie Danner: I think that gives us a really good foundation of understanding ableism. Can you share some information about the anti-ableism movement? How did it get started? And how did it make its way into the field of early care and education?
Jessica Bacon: Yeah, sure. So I think there’s a lot of different kind of aspects of work that folks have been doing in society that kind of lead to our understanding of ableism. So one is kind of an academic field. I think the field of disability studies has given a lot of language to helping us understand what it means to be disabled in society, what disability discrimination means in society. There’s a lot of elements to this, you know, large field that now exists, and it is an interdisciplinary field.
And then a subset of disability studies are called disability studies and education, which looks specifically at how our societal understandings and responses to disability impact how our schools operate. And so one of the cornerstones, it’s certainly not the only element, and it’s certainly not beyond critique, but I think it’s helpful in schools. The disability studies promote the idea of a social model perspective vs. a medical model perspective.
And so our schooling structures and systems are really based in a medical model perspective of disability. Which basically means that if we look at, you know, an outsider is looking at a person with a disability through a medical model lens, what they see is, when they see that the person has a label, is that there’s something wrong in the body of the person, that there is like a medical problem. You know, it’s a very deficit-oriented perspective. And so, when we focus on the deficits of a person that’s been given a label, we end up thinking that our job as educators is to fix what’s wrong with the person.
The social model perspective instead looks at, not what’s wrong with the person, but thinks of disability as kind of a natural part of human variation, and also understands that at times disability is actually constructed by society, and you know labels are very contextual and nuanced. But so the goal in a social model perspective is not to fix the person, but to say what’s going on around the person that isn’t allowing for them to be successful in this environment.
And so then the intervention isn’t about fixing the person, but it’s about saying, okay, so are my materials inaccessible? Is my classroom structures inaccessible? Are my procedures, or you know, rules, you know, problematic for the person? And so if those are the questions that you ask, then the change that’s made, is not to fix the kid, but it’s to fix the environment, it’s to build relationships. It’s to help reduce prejudice.
So I think that kind of academic work that’s been done has set a really strong foundation for us to understand what ableism is in society. And the other, I think, super important, historical points to say is that, you know, this is also built on a long history of disability rights activists, people with disabilities fighting for their own rights throughout society, throughout history. You know, alongside the civil rights movements. You know there’s some great films like Crip Camp, for instance, if people haven’t seen that, that really shows the historical movement, you know, from the people, from the perspective of folks with disabilities.
You know, activists have been pointing out for a long time that our structures and society is ableist and that has obstructed people’s ability to participate in society. And it’s less about, again it’s less about their bodies or their differences, but about, you know, attitudinal barriers and legal barriers. So that’s I think, a little bit about the contextual background. I think, when we’re looking at how anti- … so anti-ableism is work, that’s, you know, being done in schools and society to reduce prejudice and discrimination against people with disabilities.
I think one really important framework to think about anti-ableism when we get into early childhood education is to really look at normalizing practices that are, I think, more and more kind of creeping down into early childhood education. I think we all kind of understand that our U.S. schools have for a long time now, really standardized curriculum and ways of doing things for kids, you know, starting at least in third grade. But I think, you know, it’s that those kinds of movements are creeping down as we try to have kids, you know, become, you know, literate at really really young ages, and so forth.
And the ways that that kind of plays out, I think, tends to increase ableism because kids who don’t fit those norms, or those higher and higher and higher expectations are seen and viewed as deficient. And so kids who, I don’t know, maybe 30 years ago, would have just been seen as a kid, who, I don’t know, who’s just a kid right? Who’s developing however that individual kid is developing, is now being targeted, and you know referred and assessed as having a disability.
Through the medical-model perspective, the intervention is again focused on fixing the kid and helping the kid become more normalized rather than you know an anti-ableist or anti-assimilationist approach that says, so all kids are different, little ones are developing at rapidly different rates all the time. And I’m not saying that we never need special ed or early intervention services, you know, but I think the strict norms in our classrooms, especially when we’re talking about behavior, increase actually, and it makes it harder for kids to exist in those rooms and do well and be supported because they’re only being responded to through deficit perspectives.
There’s some good work on critiquing our over reliance on early childhood education and developmental models as well, and how that connects to ableist frameworks, because so many kids do not develop in this ladder-like step-by-step framework that our developmental models assert that kids should be developing around. And then so when kids are developing at varied rates, right, then they’re targeted as having something wrong with them.
So yeah, one person that comes to mind that has done good work on this around literacy is also actually, sadly, late. Chris Cleaver is his name. And he did work with young kids with Down syndrome and their literacy acquisition, acquisition skills, and found that a lot of kids were showing literacy skills in really unexpected ways and in spurts and in fits. But unfortunately, the early childhood classrooms that were only letting kids move through literacy in this very ladder-like step-by-step framework, were actually holding kids back from developing because they weren’t doing it in a normative way.
And so, you know, I think those are other examples of kind of how ableism and the ideas that we all have to be kind of doing things in a normative way play out in the early childhood classroom. So yeah, I think I think those are, you know, I also think that we have to acknowledge too, you know, early childhood classrooms are the spaces where we tend to refer and label kids the most often, and it’s certainly not just about disability because our lenses around cultural differences, racial differences, maybe economic differences, even gender differences, impact how we think of what disability is or isn’t.
So you know, it is a well-documented, well-known long history, actually a global phenomenon, that minority kids are overrepresented in special education categories, particularly more stigmatizing ones like intellectual disability or emotional disability. And even though we don’t, you know, we don’t tend to label into 13 categories for the small kids, the reasons why kids get referred and labeled, they’re still there similar and still built around in the same system.
And so I think that we, we see cultural variability. You know your average teacher in the U.S. is a white middle-class woman encountering kids who are not the same. And so, you know, the lens of cultural differences, racial differences, that teachers take in kids’, you know, different ways of being sometimes becomes disability even when, you know, it’s really not. And I think that’s absolutely another example of ableism. So, hopefully, that gets some of your question there.
Natalie Danner: Thank you for sharing. That’s given us a lot to think about from the idea of social and medical model disability to the ideas of over representation within special education. There was a lot there, so I’m taking it all in.
Jessica Bacon: Oh, and actually I wanted to say too. So I went. This was a cool experience. I took me and my colleague Priya Lalvani took grad students to Finland this past summer to study their education system around inclusive and disability specifically. And I’m not going to say everything was perfect, because it certainly wasn’t. The way that they handle kids with more significant disabilities is just as segregative as we are, if not worse. But in terms of kids who have, who we would think of as having more mild disabilities. We visited some early childhood schools.
I mean, first of all, nothing is standardized until not like age 9. They play like until 9. And they take the lead, the lead of kids’ play. It’s sort of like a Montessori framework where you know kids play. If they’re interested in literacy, then they follow the lead of the child. But for kids who are struggling, they use a tiered system that’s sort of similar to our response to intervention, but it’s actually really really different. Because when they showed us their like evaluation framework for kids who are basically struggling, that were little, and every like point of evaluation was actually not about the kid. It was about the classroom environment.
So like the questions were like, “Is the kid getting enough cuddle time from adults?” Right? Like is the classroom providing enough access to X, Y, and Z. There was never a deficit question about kids, and they really don’t have disability categories the way we do at all until the more significant disabilities come around. They’re just responsive to learner diversity. And so your kid in the U.S. who has a learning disability, or a speech disability, or so on and so forth. It’s just not labeled there. Their environment is just adaptive and flexible. So it was a really interesting way to kind of see the social model at work over kind of a deficit model.
Natalie Danner: Thank you for sharing that. Wow! I, I think that’s probably a great opportunity that your students had there to visit different models of education within other countries.
Jessica Bacon: That was a good experience for us all.
Natalie Danner: And the idea of having a more flexible environment and thinking of education in a flexible way rather than you know lockstep curriculum. And I think when we’re talking about early childhood classrooms, we have more of an opportunity there to be flexible in many different settings. So when we’re talking about those inclusive early childhood classrooms, sometimes teachers shy away from talking about disability because they don’t want to say the wrong thing. What advice would you give those teachers?
Jessica Bacon: Yeah. So, I think this is a good question, and this is like, this is a little bit different. This is like directly addressing that a disability exists, which I think is a little different than some of the other stuff I was talking about. And so, you know, I think especially with young kids. But really throughout school, you know, I’m always amazed when I start having these conversations with college students, and they’re like, we’ve never talked about disability as an identity. Our whole lives. We didn’t even know it was really, you know, an identity that one could have, or we didn’t know anything about disability rights, or you know.
So our schools ignore discussing disability as an identity category pretty much across the board. In New Jersey, where I live, there’s been a recent law that requires middle and high schools to teach LGBTQ and disability history. So that’s a nice step forward, but it’s still not asking elementary or early childhood classrooms to do this. First of all silences, being silent about the topic of disability in any direct way reinforces ableism, it reinforces a stigma because it tells kids, we can’t discuss this.
And I think kids hear that from not just the fact that we don’t talk about it in classrooms, but from adults, whether it’s their parents, or whether it’s teachers saying don’t mention that that kid looks different, or don’t go ask that person in a wheelchair a question about how they get around, right? The kids are learning like, oh, this is something we shouldn’t talk about. My proposal, and I did some writing about this with Priya Lalvani, so I should say our proposal, is that, you know, we really need to find ways, developmentally appropriate ways, to integrate conversations around disability and, you know, academic and physical diversity into our curriculums directly.
So certainly, by using teachable moments in the classroom, helping kids, kind of creating frameworks where kids themselves are learning kinda the ideas that fair isn’t the same as equal, right? So like in our classroom, we respond to everybody’s needs, because we’re all different, because no two kids are the same. So let’s brainstorm together what everybody, you know, what kinds of supports or what kinds of materials in this classroom will help everybody learn. Obviously, like a big a big way to do it is to find literature that includes characters with disabilities that are represented well, because I do think, you know, it’s important to be discerning. There’s a lot of literature out there that has really negative stereotypes around disability. But there’s some really great stuff out there, too, that can be integrated into classrooms. So I just think kids are naturally aware and curious, and they only learn from adults that they shouldn’t be talking about disability.
And so, you know, having, having ways where we’re really purposefully integrating these conversations into the classrooms. Or even things like project-based learning where kids, maybe there’s a kid in their school who uses a wheelchair, who has a mobility difference and the playgrounds not accessible like, how do we get kids included in the conversations to say, hey, one of our members of our school can’t play with us. What can we do to tell our principal we want to change this? Or bringing adults who have disabilities or marginalized adults to talk to kids, or if there’s a parent who has a disability, having them come in and talk to kids about their disabilities. Those kinds of things can be really helpful, and there’s a ton of materials out there now for all different age levels, too. There’s videos, and there’s the Sesame Street character, Julia, that could be, you know, used as a conversation tool.
Natalie Danner: I love the idea of using kind of the picture books and read alouds, and we know that young children are just so curious and aware of their friends, their classmates, anyone that they encounter in the supermarket, and they ask questions. It’s more about how we respond to those questions as teachers and as parents and thinking about, they’re noticing something, let’s talk about it. And I think that’s a good way of thinking about it.
The other thing that I’ve heard from teachers is that sometimes they don’t want to violate confidentiality, which we know can be an issue within, an issue that they are concerned about within special education by identifying that a child has a specific disability. So how do you, when you’re having those conversations in the classroom, how do you balance that privacy of the individual child with the idea of anti-ableism?
Jessica Bacon: I mean, I don’t think it’s different than teaching about any identity group. So you know, I don’t think that teaching about disability in our curriculum is any different than teaching about race in our curriculum or teaching about gender in our curriculum. And finding, you know, again, finding age-appropriate ways to do so. Certainly you don’t want to tell the class, hey, we’re doing this lesson because, you know, Joey has autism or whatever.
You know, I think, having ways to incorporate those conversations naturally as part of our curriculum, as part of our conversation, isn’t violating anybody’s confidentiality. It’s bringing up, you know, a topic that exists in the world that, you know, is appropriate for using it as a teaching tool. So, you know, and I’ve also seen, and maybe this is more likely to happen as kids get older, but I’ve seen kids who are happy to talk about their disabilities. Who have been, you know, who have fostered, and who have had adults around them foster a positive sense of disability identity.
So possibly as kids, you know, feel proud, feel disability pride, you know, see that they’re part of a minority group that has a long history that can be something that we can be, you know, happy to share about our experiences. You know kids are sometimes willing to share, or in support with their parents perhaps. It’s certainly not something I would ever recommend to be mandatory for a kid. But sometimes those kinds of things naturally will occur.
I’ve seen kids with communication devices who do a presentation for their class at the beginning of every year, saying like, here’s what my disability is. Here’s my communication device. Here’s how you could help me use my communication device. So those kinds of things are, you know, can be natural ways for kids to share with each other. I think the more we talk about it, the less the worries about confidentiality overrides, because people are like oh, it’s not really a scary thing that I have to be quiet about. It’s just a part of who I am. And that’s okay.
So I think, yeah, I mean, and I can talk a lot more about the structures of schools, you know, that are violating kids’ confidentiality every day because they’re in the special ed classroom down the hall or they’re being pulled out for special service. Those are much, to me, stronger markers of difference and specialness than asking kids to have conversations about disability identity in a classroom where, you know, it’s an inclusive environment where kids are learning together.
So we’re constantly violating kids’ confidentiality by putting them in a classroom down the hall in the basement or by pulling them out every other day. Kids notice who’s in the low reading group. Kids notice who’s being pulled out. Kids notice the classroom down the hall where the kids who are, you know, at lunch and recess at different times than them.
Natalie Danner: That’s a way of thinking about it that I haven’t thought about confidentiality in the past. So thanks for that thought. Now, when we’re talking about steps teachers can take to build an anti-ableist classroom, what advice do you have for teachers out there?
Jessica Bacon: Yeah. I like this question. You know I do, I do work with, I do some professional development work on inclusion. So this question kind of reminds me of, like, what approaches do I do in those spaces? Because I think teacher training is a little different. You know there’s work that I do. But my students are kind of, you know, forced to listen to me and read what I tell them to read, and, you know, spend extensive amounts of time, you know, developing theory.
And I think that’s a little different from people who are, who have been practicing teachers for a while, or who are busy, and they’re not taking, you know, if they’re not spending a full semester learning about these things. So one thing that I find to be the most necessary entry point into these kinds of conversations, is actually the theoretical framework for how we think about kids.
I actually don’t believe that we can expect teachers to change the way that they practice or respond to kids’ differences unless we start talking about kids in our society differently. So I actually think that, you know, I recommend to teachers who don’t know about, like you know, who have never encountered a reading around the medical model to, you know, look that up, you know. I’m happy to share some references later, if you want to add links or something.
But you know, I think when we, when it is our, and it isn’t anybody’s fault, right? This is our society’s way of thinking about disability. It is ingrained right? It is as natural as, I don’t know, as a fish in water, right? So nobody should feel awful that they respond to differences in their kids by reaffirming those differences through a deficit perspective because that’s what our society has trained all of us to do, and it’s trained us to think that way. And so, but I think we can also relearn and rethink that kind of natural reaction.
So when we see a kid who isn’t meeting, you know, our standards, or when they’re, when we’re getting frustrated as a teacher about a kid, you know. Sometimes I’ll have teachers explain to me like, you know, a kid’s behavior. And they say all of these horrible things. And I’m like how old is this kid you’re talking about? And they’re like 3, and I’m like, you’re talking about this child like they’re like a monster but they’re 3, right? Like let’s just think about the fact that this kid is 3, and they’re a human learning to interact with the world.
So I think sometimes we have to take a really strong step back and say, all right, so what lens is guiding me to think this way? Is there a way for me to rethink it? What if I think about the fact like, remind myself, like kids are all different. Kids have different backgrounds. They have different, you know. It’s not that, disability studies isn’t saying that kids don’t have different biologies. They certainly do. But when disability becomes created, it’s when our societal conception can, you know, collide with human variability, and that’s when we create categories of difference.
And so if the new question is not, what’s wrong with the kid, what are they doing wrong? How can I fix the kid? But again, like I said earlier, what is going on around the kid? What assumptions are, is everybody coming in to understand this kid with? And then what are the strengths of this kid? What do they bring to the table? How do I build off the strengths? How do I think about disability as just one teeny aspect of who this kid is, even, even if they even have a disability, because sometimes it’s so contextual. You know. And so how do I? How do I really adapt my learning environment to honor the strengths of everybody in the classroom to support, to build community, to allow kids to grow with each other?
So you know, I think, emphasizing those kinds of play-based structures that’s, really, has really flexible environments that really gives kids an opportunity to support each other, to learn together, less compliance oriented. If you feel as a teacher that it’s really important for little kids to sit down and be quiet for 20 minutes. Ask yourself why you think that’s important. Where does that come from? Is that really benefiting the kids, or is it benefiting you? It’s probably not even benefiting you, right, because then the kids, it’s not working for anybody.
So I think those are some things in terms of perspective. And then I think, looking at our environments and are we using all the tools? Are we accommodating kids’ needs? Are we giving little ones opportunity to explore technology or other communication devices if communication is a struggle for them? You know, universal design has a lot of great tools and techniques and ways of thinking that help not just the kids who are kind of on the margins, or just the kids who we struggle with the most, but all kids. So I think, you know, UDL is, it’s a nice way of meeting everybody’s needs without stigmatizing difference. Which again, I think all of that relates to ableism because it’s, it’s not prioritizing normal ways of being in the classroom. It’s honoring all ways of being in the classroom. Yeah, talking about disability as a positive identity category, like I just talked about. So I think those are some things.
Natalie Danner: Yeah, I really liked how you were thinking about the teacher’s mindset as kind of that first step and thinking about how we think about disability before we start to think about how we can change what we’re doing in the classroom, but also thinking about those ideas that you mentioned that what’s happening around the child? So, how are they not perhaps accessing the curriculum or the activities that the other children are accessing easily? And how can we make that happen for that child so that they have more access and more, with that means we need to implement some accommodations. Maybe we need to do that.
So thinking about the environment and the supports around the child and what they need to be successful in the classroom. So, thank you for giving so many different ideas, and I think any of those ideas might be a good starting off point for a teacher to kind of delve into more research about what they can do in the classroom as well.
Jessica Bacon: Yeah. I also think, you reminded me of one thing I didn’t mention. You know the idea of presuming competence is kind of another foundational framework that I think teachers especially, actually especially early childhood teachers, you know, should really consider. Because you know the idea that a kid who, for instance, is nonverbal, which is going to be much more likely with young children. You can assume their lack of ability to verbally express themselves is evidence of disability or you can presume that they actually just haven’t learned the skills or been given the tools yet to express themselves.
And so, if I assume that they haven’t been given the tools yet, then I am not gonna respond to them by holding back content, by holding back participation. Right? My reaction, then, is to say, well, this kid is probably learning anyway, even if they’re not telling me what they’re learning. So I’m going to continue to provide access and support and include them in the everyday going-ons of the classroom.
Because if we assume they can’t learn, and then we often say, well, then they can’t participate in this room. Therefore they don’t, they shouldn’t be in this room. They should be somewhere else. They should be in the room that can deal with those kids, right? And so, yeah, I think that’s another foundational framework. It’s just always asking yourself: Am I actually, is this based on any evidence? And if there is a lack of evidence, then I should always presume competence.
Natalie Danner: I love that you added that. Presuming competence is so important, I think in any classroom, but especially early childhood. So for our last question, could you describe some activities that teachers could perhaps do that promote anti-ableism in the classroom? We were thinking of something like, maybe this could be a good idea, or maybe it’s not. You can respond to this by doing an “all about me” project, or perhaps building a classroom library of books that focus on characters or protagonists with disabilities themselves.
Jessica Bacon: Yeah, I think those are definitely great ideas. You know, I certainly think an “all about me” or families kind of projects where kids are able to, you know, share who they are, share who their families are, you know. If conversations about disability are going on around them, that’s a natural place for them to possibly be able to, you know, describe and honor either their own disabilities or family members with disabilities.
You know we already talked about books, so I, of course think that you know, finding, finding books with, again, kind of a little critical before we assign them or use them, but, because some of them promote negative ways of thinking about disability. But yes, absolutely building a purposeful classroom of books is a great idea. And I’ll share the article Priya Lalvani and I wrote because it’s got, I don’t know, about 50 different ideas for early childhood classrooms too. So if you want, I don’t know if you can post stuff on your—
Natalie Danner: Yes, we’ll definitely link that to the podcast, too. Thank you.
Jessica Bacon: Yeah. Sure. So that one is actually, it’s a good one, because it’s a practitioner written journal and/or article and it’s yeah, it’s just got a bunch of ideas pretty much. That’s mostly what it is, with a little bit of theory. So yeah, I mean, I think like integrating sign language into classrooms. Maybe if you’re learning a song, you know, teaching kids some simple signs to honor that, yeah. Bringing in people who have disabilities to speak, creating murals that represent diversity, having kids come up with ideas for supporting one another, maybe having schoolwide inclusion campaigns where, you know, different classrooms create posters on inclusion, or having assemblies where we have, you know, disability as a theme, and maybe you have a speaker.
You know. I think we can do, you know, I think kids can learn how to do kind of social justice–oriented work that creates change to supporting kids, to you know tackle issues that they notice as they’re learning about supporting their family and friends with disabilities. If they notice things that are going on in their, in their communities or in their schools, you know, I think kids are able to learn about how to make change at really young ages, too, and you know, again in developmentally appropriate ways. They might not be protesting, but maybe they’re writing letters or having conversations with adults about it. Things like that. So I think those are a few, a few other ideas, too
Natalie Danner: Great activities and ways that children can be involved in kind of the anti-ableist movement as well as things that teachers can do too. So, as we wrap up, I just wanted to thank you, Dr. Bacon, for being our guest on the Illinois Early Learning Podcast.
Jessica Bacon: Thank you. It was a wonderful conversation.
Natalie Danner: It was a great conversation. I really enjoyed it. And so until next time. Thank you, and keep early learning at the forefront.
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